Great planning has made good urban areas great, but in the case of Savannah, Georgia, it literally saved the city. The beautiful port city was founded in the early 18th century with utopian ideals by a group of British colonists including James Oglethorpe, who laid out the city in a series of orderly grids that balanced public space, parks, lanes, and wards in a manner that created walkable, bucolic urbanism. When General Sherman stormed through Georgia during the Civil War more than a century later, he couldn’t bear to destroy such a beautiful city, instead gifting it to President Lincoln.
Roughly 150 years after Sherman spared Savannah, the city has greatly expanded, but fidelity to what’s known as Oglethorpe’s Plan have kept the historic downtown’s character intact. Stylish architecture has sprouted amid the palms, live oaks, and Spanish Moss that create a green canopy above the streets, and the city’s public squares, set in the middle of the main arteries cross-crossing downtown, have become gathering spaces that maintain a collegial atmosphere and easygoing pace. The layout, centuries ahead of today’s ideas of walkable urbanism, has become a much-cited example of getting things right.
"While everyone talks about it, nobody has been able to replicate it," says historian David Gobel, an architectural history professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). "This plan requires a lot of public space, and that costs money. For many, that’s not viable."
Savannah has no shortage of beautiful building and streets, but Bull Street, the main north-south street downtown, offers a showcase of what makes this part of the city special. With help from Robin Williams, chair of architectural history at the SCAD, and Gobel, two of the authors of the guidebook Buildings of Savannah, we put together a leisurely stroll through the city’s historical downtown that provides an introduction to the city’s charms.